Colleges are thinking creatively these days about linking two priorities for students: financial aid and public service.
While loan forgiveness for graduates who take service jobs has been common for years, what's catching on now is the idea of rewarding up front students who defer college to help others.
More than 80 colleges and universities have started offering some matching grants for students who earn tuition assistance through AmeriCorps. At least 1,165 have signed on to match new government grants for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. And Princeton University and Dickinson College recently created programs to support public service, expecting that these students will bring a unique dimension to campus after spending time off the education track.
"We're seeing an upsurge nationally in the number of students looking for alternatives immediately following high school graduation – whether it be a 'gap year,' ... a two-year community college, or digging deeply into a service or job commitment that will allow them to ... define an interest," says Stephanie Balmer, dean of admissions at Dickinson in Carlisle, Penn.
Dickinson is accepting applicants for a new fellowship that offers $10,000 of tuition credit for every year of full-time public service, up to $40,000. With the population of high school graduates in the US expected to decline in coming years, Ms. Balmer says, the pricey private school sees it as "an opportunity align ourselves with students who have this interest."
Twenty students recently admitted to Princeton in New Jersey will inaugurate the university's Bridge Year Program this fall. They'll head off in small groups for nine months of service work – everything from assisting street children in Ghana to aiding eco-friendly construction in India. The university covers core expenses and gives extra funding to those who can't afford airfare and incidentals.
Part of a series of Princeton initiatives to expand global awareness, Bridge Year also aims to "give students a respite from the pressure to excel and achieve academically that now dominates the lives of successful high school students," said President Shirley Tilghman when announcing the program last year.
"What I'll learn in India is far beyond anything I could learn in a classroom," Bridge Year participant Shaina Watrous writes in an e-mail. "This program is amazing because it sends us the message that we actually can make a difference, and gets us excited about service work early on."
The idea of deferring college for a year to study abroad, do internships, or embark on various adventures has been slowly gaining ground in the US since the 1980s, says Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs consulting service in Princeton, N.J. "We've seen a huge shift ... to a point now where you're beginning to see it moving into the institutions."
In a recent survey of 300 Americans who took such "gap years," 60 percent said it affected their choice of academic major or career, says Karl Haigler, coauthor of "The Gap-Year Advantage." More than 90 percent started or returned to college within a year.